Historian Timothy Tyson teaches a class at Duke University. A UMNS
photo by Jon Gardiner, Duke University.
Timothy Tyson never forgot what happened in Oxford, N.C., the summer he
The memories of the murder there that inflamed racial tensions persisted
even after the family left town when his father, the Rev. Vernon Tyson,
was asked to move to another United Methodist church in Wilmington.
The younger Tyson returned to Oxford for occasional visits, paying
attention to how the community coped with racial tension and connecting
it with his experiences with school integration as a middle- and
“We had a lot of violence in the hallways,” recalled Tyson, a historian
who is now 50 years old. “We had dozens of buildings burned in
Wilmington. We had the National Guard in the streets.
“Going through the experience of school integration, which was both good
and bad, made me want to know how this craziness got started.”
One day in 1982, when he was a freshman at the University of North
Carolina at Greensboro, Tyson discovered he could look up back issues of
the Raleigh, N.C., News-Observer at Jenkins Library.
Ricky Schroder portrays the Rev. Vernon Tyson in “Blood Done Sign My
Name.” A UMNS photo courtesy of Paladin / Real Folk Productions.
He was so intent on reading the news coverage of the May 11, 1970,
killing of Henry “Dickie” Marrow, an African-American Vietnam War
veteran, and its aftermath, that he sat in the library for 12 hours
straight. When the building closed at midnight, he hid in a restroom
until everyone had left, then continued reading the old news accounts
for the rest of the night.
Later, Tyson went to Oxford and conducted his first oral history,
interviewing Robert Teel, one of those accused and acquitted in Marrow’s
murder, for a paper he was writing for college.
He transferred to Emory University and finished his undergraduate degree
there. But his obsession continued when he returned to North Carolina
to attend graduate school at Duke University. For his master’s thesis in
history, which he finished in 1990, Tyson wrote “a more detached,
historical account” of the murder and its impact on Oxford.
Beginnings of the book
For 12 years, he left the story alone – until one morning, at the age of
42, when he found himself writing the first chapter of what would
become his book. “I knew that I was finally ready,” he said.
As he was writing, Tyson talked nearly every day with his father. One
day, a package arrived at his doorstep, containing his mother’s diary
and his father’s journal, which helped him with the chronology of the
“Blood Done Sign My Name,” published in 2004, won the Southern Book
Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Tyson received the Louisville Grawmeyer Award in Religion from
Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2006.
After teaching for years at the University of Wisconsin, Tyson is back
at Duke University, serving as a senior research scholar at the Center
for Documentary Studies and a visiting professor of American
Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke Divinity School. He also
teaches in Duke’s history department and at the University of North
Vernon Tyson, now 80 and serving as interim pastor at Elevation United
Methodist Church in Benson, N.C., about 30 minutes from his home,
accompanied his son to the Feb. 10 premiere of the movie version of
"Blood Done Sign My Name" at the Pan-African Film and Arts Festival in
His mother, Martha Tyson, was unable to make the trip. She had
commitments to her United Methodist Women unit at Edenton Street United
Methodist Church in Raleigh.
Timothy Tyson worships at Amity United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill
and at the Duke University chapel, “but I’m often found where my daddy
happens to be preaching,” he added.
He conducts his own type of “ministry of reconciliation” by visiting
dozens of churches and high schools each year with Mary Williams, a
gospel singer, to lead conversations about race relations. He also has
participated in discussions after performances of a stage version of his
book by Mike Wiley, a playwright and actor.
“Even though many things have changed, we’re still very segregated,” he
said. “We still haven’t resolved the tension between the gospel and the
social realities of our own lives.”
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or